Open Access Open Badges Research article

Dichotomous roles for the orphan nuclear receptor NURR1 in breast cancer

Shawn Llopis1, Brittany Singleton1, Tamika Duplessis2, Latonya Carrier2, Brian Rowan2 and Christopher Williams1*

Author Affiliations

1 Division of Basic Pharmaceutical Sciences, College of Pharmacy, Xavier University of Louisiana, 1 Drexel Dr, New Orleans, LA, 70125, USA

2 Department of Structural and Cellular Biology, Tulane University School of Medicine, 1483 Tulane Av, New Orleans, LA, 70118, USA

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BMC Cancer 2013, 13:139  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-13-139

Published: 21 March 2013



NR4A orphan nuclear receptors are involved in multiple biological processes which are important in tumorigenesis such as cell proliferation, apoptosis, differentiation, and glucose utilization. The significance of NR4A family member NURR1 (NR4A2) in breast cancer etiology has not been elucidated. The purpose of this study was to ascertain the impact of NURR1 expression on breast transformation, tumor growth, and breast cancer patient survival.


We determined the expression of NURR1 in normal breast versus breast carcinoma in tissue microarrays (immunohistochemistry), tissue lysates (immunoblot), and at the mRNA level (publically available breast microarrays). In addition NURR1 expression was compared among breast cancer patients in cohorts based on p53 expression, estrogen receptor α expression, tumor grade, and lymph node metastases. Kaplan-Meier survival plots were used to determine the correlation between NURR1 expression and relapse free survival (RFS). Using shRNA-mediated silencing, we determined the effect of NURR1 expression on tumor growth in mouse xenografts.


Results from breast cancer tissue arrays demonstrate a higher NURR1 expression in the normal breast epithelium compared to breast carcinoma cells (p ≤ 0.05). Among cases of breast cancer, NURR1 expression in the primary tumors was inversely correlated with lymph node metastases (p ≤ 0.05) and p53 expression (p ≤ 0.05). Clinical stage and histological grade were not associated with variation in NURR1 expression. In gene microarrays, 4 of 5 datasets showed stronger mean expression of NURR1 in normal breast as compared to transformed breast. Additionally, NURR1 expression was strongly correlated with increase relapse free survival (HR = 0.7) in a cohort of all breast cancer patients, but showed no significant difference in survival when compared among patients whom have not been treated systemically (HR = 0.91). Paradoxically, NURR1 silenced breast xenografts showed significantly decreased growth in comparison to control, underscoring a biphasic role for NURR1 in breast cancer progression.


NURR1 function presents a dichotomy in breast cancer etiology, in which NURR1 expression is associated with normal breast epithelial differentiation and efficacy of systemic cancer therapy, but silencing of which attenuates tumor growth. This provides a strong rationale for the potential implementation of NURR1 as a pharmacologic target and biomarker for therapeutic efficacy in breast cancer.

Breast cancer; NURR1; NR4A2; Orphan receptor